The brilliant and prolific Jay Lake returns to the City Imperishable, with a Madness of Flowers. This is a decadent, surreal urban fantasy in the New Weird vein. Sex Dwarfs, spoilers, and a Polar Bear await.
Madness of Flowers starts off right on the heels of the action in 2006's Trial of Flowers. I can describe some of the events and characters, but that cannot prepare you for the hallucinogenic weirdness to be found here. The City Imperishable was once the capital of a mighty empire, and remains a center of commerce and industry. Steam engines and primitive telephony exist alongside spooky noumenal powers. These supernatural phenomena are deeply intertwined with the eternal rhythms of life, barely comprehended and even less easily controlled.
A thousand years ago the Empire's last ruler, aptly named the Imperator Terminus, marched out the City gates to the North with an army. He rode not to conquer but to remove an eldritch threat from within. He was never seen again, but The City Imperishable continued. In the last volume, power-hungry politicians sought to restore the lost Empire, awakening Old Gods that nearly destroyed them all. The central protagonists of the Trial of Flowers sacrificed themselves to retake the City. In the end the day was won but at the price of some gruesome transformations. At least one of them was killed, and this still depresses him terribly.
Now the new Lord Mayor Imago, recovering from radical elective surgery, must rebuild. He immediately faces threats to his new administration. The nomadic desert Tokhari warriors, led by their shaman Sandwalkers, were Imago's tenuous allies in the recent unpleasantness. Now many of them are still encamped outside the city walls idly polishing weapons. A company of foreign mercenaries called The Winter Boys keeps peace on the streets dressed in jesters' motley riding battle-trained giraffes. Their leader, the roguish Captain Enero, seems friendly enough, but he has other allegiances and the civic coffers can buy his service for only so long. Imago's political rivals are already busy building a coalition to take his Chain of Office.
At the mouth of the River Saltus, a pirate fleet has seized Port Defiance, blockading all maritime traffic to The City Imperishable. The Mayor's agent, the Slashed Dwarf Oneisphorous-former progressive agitator, was already on assignment in the moss-shrouded town to convince his fellow expatriate Dwarfs to return upriver. Now he must organize a resistance movement. Most of the locals aren't interested, but perhaps he can find help among the native minority, the Angoulême. The traders and jade miners of the Port dismiss these simple swamp people as backward savages, but Oneisphorous is told that they are the remnants of a long forgotten civilization with powerful Gods, or Loa, who still direct their lives and posess their bodies.
Meanwhile back in The City a new diversion is setting the streets abuzz with curiosity. A mysterious woman mountebank and her giant dancing ice bear have been enthralling the citizenry with songs and stories of the Imperator Terminus. She claims to have found the lost emperor's final resting place in the frozen North. If his sarcophagus and treasures are brought back home The City Imperishable will be restored to its former glory. What the Hells? They barely survive the last time something like this was tried, the ruins are still smouldering! But too late, the mob has spoken and Imago is pressured to send an expedition to the far North, the literal edge of reality. To give them an edge, he sends Bijaz, conservative Sewn Dwarf and major pervert. He recently became a conduit for divine powers he barely controls or understands. Gems, flowers, and ice generate spontaneously from his stubby hands. He derisively refers to himself as "farting butterflies". If the name Bijaz sounds familiar, it was used for dwarf characters in both Frank Herbert's Dune Messiah and the Viriconium stories of New Wave pioneer and New Weird influence, M. John Harrison.
The Dwarfs are perhaps Lake's most memorable inhabitants of The City Imperishable. They are normal human beings, not a separate species or race into swinging axes, big beards, and songs about gold. Dwarf children are raised in confining metal Boxes that stunt the growth of their limbs. Years creak by, spent in constant pain, while they're trained to excel in feats of calculation and memory like truncated Mentats. Upon matriculation a dwarf submits to having his or her lips sewn partially shut. They don the traditional muslin wraps and serve The City as civil servants and commercial clerks. In recent generations some Dwarfs have rejected this cruel caste tradition whose origins are largely forgotten. They have Slashed their stitches and speak out for equality, some of the more radical among them even suggesting the abolition of the Boxing. Sewn Dwarfs like Bijaz consider the Slashed to be dangerous blasphemers but lately the two sides have begun to work together. Bijaz is not completely comfortable with his own upbringing. His suppressed frustration and self-hatred has manifested in deviant sexual appetites that completely ignore the idea of informed consent. The phrase "twisted little fuck" leaps to mind, and he's one of the good guys — for a given value of good. Although he now resists these darker impulses, Bijaz continues to get his freak on in this novel as do other characters. It gets pretty kinky at times, but I see the sex as a rituals to gain some sense of control or strength in a world that makes no sense at all, so no different than here, really.
A Dwarf of more heroic stature is Saltfingers the dunny diver, "stranger than a hen with three beaks", and the most knowledgeable and bravest of The City's sewer workers. These brave underground heroes patrol the unimaginably ancient tunnels keeping shit going. Armed with guns that socket into steam lines they battle cthonic horrors and placate sleeping forgotten gods. The dunny divers are minor but memorable players, made me think of Thomas Pynchon. Also of interest is the Tribade, a matriarchal society that combines elements of the Girl Scouts, the Mafia, and the Bene Gesserit run by the woman known as Biggest Sister. These are just a few of the people in the neighborhoods of The City Imperishable, the people that you meet each day.
Madness of Flowers is an excellent example of Fritz Leiber's concept of megapolisomancy, the shaping or generation of supernatural forces by a city. Imagine its humble origins, perhaps a collection of a few crude huts. Every day a goatherd drives his flock to cross a stream at the same shallow point. This daily action becomes ritual, the well-worn path becomes a road; first dirt then cobblestones and later tarmac. The stream has long since been buried and only a handful of historians care about the meaning of the name Gotford Street but The City remembers. The patterns of commerce and information combine with the web of water works and streets. From the Hermetic rites of Ancient Greece to the Mississippi Delta of Robert Johnson, we have known a deal with the Other Side can be made at the crossroads. What happens to a grid of hundreds of crossroads? All the actions of the population are part of the spell, from a muttered prayer for a parking space to a spontaneous street riot. The gods or paramentals are just pieces of the whole, as are the shopkeepers, buskers and pigeons. The magic in this sort of system is just as wild and unpredictable as the frenzy of the Maenads of being ridden by the Loas.
This is my kind of Urban Fantasy. Putting mythic traditions in a contemporary city is fine, there are great examples from Crowley to DeLint and Gaiman. But I enjoy Jay Lake's wild world-building from the bedrock up, which is so much more imaginative. It's a bit like getting walloped with a pillowcase filled with lasagna, a shocking but tasty experience that will certainly make a lasting impression. He is on par with New Weird fantasists Miéville, Swainston, and VanderMeer, and also two of my favorites: Jack Vance and Cordwainer Smith.
Trial of Flowers and Madness of Flowers are similar to Lake's last novel Green. The two series and the many attendant short stories may be in the same world although given its infinite scale (more plane than planet) I think Green's stomping grounds of Copper Downs are probably an astronomical distance from The City Imperishable. These books also differ from Green with a much broader scope using multiple storylines and viewpoints. You get the feeling that all the different characters are just part the massive complex organisim that is The City Imperishable. They can never hope to harness all its power, only adapt and survive. As their municipal motto goes, no matter what happens — Civitas Est — The City Is.
Commenter Grey_Area is known to all Dwarfs, Slashed and Sewn alike, as Chris Hsiang. Little man, you've had a busy day.